revisiting the 9s: before sunset (richard linklater, 2004)

[This is the third in a new series that will probably be VERY intermittent, if I remember to post at all. I've long known that while I have given my share of 10-out-of-10 ratings for movies over the years, in almost every case, those movies are fairly old. By rough count, I have only given the top rating to 17 non-documentaries from the 21st century. (For some reason, I don't have a problem giving tens to new documentaries.) So I got this idea to go back and revisit movies of relatively recent vintage that I gave a rating of 9, to see if time and perspective convinced me to bump that rating up to 10. Of course, it's always possible I'll drop the rating, but time will tell.]

I last wrote about Before Sunset in 2011, when I said that since it had stood the test of time, I was raising my rating from 8 to 9. Before Midnight had not yet come out, but later, when I saw that third film in the thus-far trilogy, I felt it was even better than the first two. Part of that was the accumulated experience of the three, and I think in a rating sense that I found this perhaps too attractive ... if Midnight was a 10, and Sunrise was an 8, then clearly Sunset was a 9. There is a certain logic to this, although it also shows the silliness involved in ratings movies at all. I think I'd give the trilogy a 10, even if the average rating for the three is 9.

And seeing Before Sunset for a third time, I'm still content with that 9 rating. There is something to be said for that accumulation. I realize that if they ever make a fourth film in the series, my rating system will break because I can't give the new movie an 11.

I recently updated a Letterboxd list that ranked directors by the ratings I gave their movies. Richard Linklater is #36 on that list, between William Wyler and Michael Haneke. (In an earlier version he was #35 ... Wyler has since passed him, although I'm not sure why.)

My earlier reviews of Before Sunset covered most of what I thought. I did make a couple of new-to-me observations this time. The Before series is rather like a fictional version of the Up series, documentaries which looked at the same people in 7-year increments. In the Before movies, we catch up with Celine and Jesse every nine years, but of course, they aren't real people, so Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke can play with the characters' biographies in ways you can't do in a documentary. Also, there is a scene that seems to foreshadow Before Midnight, although obviously this wasn't actually happening since that movie hadn't even been planned when Sunset was made.

In terms of accumulated power, the greatest scene in all three movies is the long stretch near the end of Before Midnight, when the two, married by that point, have a terrible fight that puts everything on the table. Watching Sunset again, I saw premonitions of that scene in this one.

I would welcome a fourth installment, although it's probably too late to make the usual nine-year deadline. There is talk of another sequel, but the possibility seems mixed. Even if the fourth film never happens, the Before trilogy stands as a great achievement. Throw in Dazed and Confused, A Scanner Darkly, and Boyhood, and you see why I rate Linklater so highly.


revisiting the 9s: stories we tell (sarah polley, 2012)

[This is the second in a new series that will probably be VERY intermittent, if I remember to post at all. I've long known that while I have given my share of 10-out-of-10 ratings for movies over the years, in almost every case, those movies are fairly old. By rough count, I have only given the top rating to 16 non-documentaries from the 21st century. (For some reason, I don't have a problem giving tens to new documentaries.) So I got this idea to go back and revisit movies of relatively recent vintage that I gave a rating of 9, to see if time and perspective convinced me to bump that rating up to 10. Of course, it's always possible I'll drop the rating, but time will tell.]

The second movie in the series is Stories We Tell, which I last saw (and rated "9") in 2017. At that time, I wrote:

Sarah Polley is up to many things with Stories We Tell, which seems surprising if you just offer a brief description: Polley makes a documentary about her family, using interviews and home movies. Polley turns this seemingly simple exercise into a smart examination of memory, family, and the very act of making a documentary. She is so smooth with her craft that her ambitions never slow the film down, never seem pretentious.

(I notice that back in 2017, Stories We Tell was #185 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. It is currently at #116, which shows how our impressions change over time.)

One way Polley avoids being pretentious is by sneaking her methods into the film. The first time I watched it, I missed Polley's "trick" entirely until the closing credits. It's such an audacious move that everyone who writes about Stories We Tell must apologize for the spoilers they are about to offer, arguing that you can't talk about the movie without talking about the spoilers. This is an example of how extraordinary the movie is, for it's hard to think of a documentary that needs spoiler warnings. It's not a spoiler to say that someone gets killed at Altamont during Gimme Shelter, and while the audience for Stories We Tell might not know specifics about the lives of Polley and her family, you could look at Wikipedia to find out "what happened". The spoiler is in how Polley tells the story. (And this is as good a place as any to mention Michael Munn, the film's editor, who is exemplary in his work here.)

This is crucial. As at least one person asks, why would anyone be interested in the story of our family? The people have led interesting lives, the way all of us lead interesting lives. But Polley doesn't really make us interested in her family as much as she makes us interested in her "smart examination of memory, family, and the very act of making a documentary". There is a meta theme here ... Polley makes a documentary that examines making a documentary. Where someone like Frederick Wiseman essentially hides what he is doing with his fly-on-the-wall documentaries, Polley draws attention to her methods. Which makes the one big secret to her film all the more surprising, because the movie seems transparent, but it wasn't, at least not completely. And Polley doesn't use her "trick" to draw attention to her brilliant film making, she uses it to further emphasize the theme of family memories.

In an interview with Kate Erbland in 2019, Polley admits she is surprised at how resonant Stories We Tell is for so many people. What feels like a smartly planned approach turns out to been have something less controlled:

The fact that anyone saw a cohesive film in there is still amazing to me.... For me, the legacy is that anyone thought it was an actual movie, as opposed to just a complete mess that I never cleaned up.... At no point did I feel like I knew what I was doing when I was making it. It just felt like such a mess, it felt really unpleasant.

Polley accomplishes so much with Stories We Tell that it ends up being a perfect candidate for "Revisiting the 9s". Although as noted, I have never shied away from giving my highest rating to recent documentaries, I held back a bit with Stories We Tell, probably because Polley's accomplishments felt "un-documentary" enough that I treated it like just another great art film. Which it is. It's also a great documentary. It's a great film. I should have given it a "10" from the start.


revisiting the 9s: l.a. confidential (curtis hanson, 1997)

With this post, I begin a new series that will probably be VERY intermittent, if I remember to post at all. I've long known that while I have given my share of 10-out-of-10 ratings for movies over the years, in almost every case, those movies are fairly old. By rough count, I have only given the top rating to 16 non-documentaries from the 21st century. (For some reason, I don't have a problem giving tens to new documentaries.) So I got this idea to go back and revisit movies of relatively recent vintage that I gave a rating of 9, to see if time and perspective convinced me to bump that rating up to 10. Of course, it's always possible I'll drop the rating, but time will tell. The first movie in this series will be L.A. Confidential, which I last saw (and rated "9") in 2009. At that time, I wrote:

When I noticed that I had long ago give this movie a rating of 9 on a scale of 10, I was a bit surprised … I remembered liking it, but not THAT much. Well, I just watched it again, and it really is that good. Russell Crowe is a very scary force of nature in this one, and it’s easy to forget now that Americans didn't know anything about him at the time. Brutal, never boring, with characters who gradually emerge with more depth, not just to serve the plot but because the movie is interested in character.

(I notice that back in 2009, L.A. Confidential was #486 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time. It is currently at #726, which shows how our impressions change over time.)

L.A. Confidential turns out to be the perfect film for me to examine my "9-not-10" tendencies. Because, as I said 12 years ago, "it really is that good". Looking back, I see that I actually have given a 10 rating to one movie from 1997: Princess Mononoke, my favorite movie from one of my favorite film makers. That sets a pretty high standard, and while the two films are of completely different genres, one question I can try to answer is simple: do I think L.A. Confidential is as good as Princess Mononoke, or is it more on the level of other 9-of-10 films from 1997 (Jackie Brown, the documentary Waco: The Rules of Engagement)? I suspect that it's more to the point of this project to ask if I think L.A. Confidential is as good as, say, The Big Sleep, another noirish film set in Los Angeles that was released in 1946, is one of my very favorite movies, and one that I gave a rating of 10 out of 10. In other words, is the only reason I give a 10 to The Big Sleep and a 9 to L.A. Confidential that one came out before I was born and one came out 24 years ago?

I appreciate how trivial this is. I'm convinced more than ever that ratings systems are more flawed than perfect. But without over-stating the importance of 9 vs. 10, the reason I want to try this project is precisely to answer that question about when I am willing to say, "this movie is as good as it gets". It's not about being "fair" to movies like L.A. Confidential or Jackie Brown if I give them a 9. But I do want to examine the process whereby I mostly call a movie "as good as it gets" if it's an older picture. When I was a grad student, I detested the notion that age defined greatness, but it seems to have worn off on me nonetheless.

So ... after seeing it (at least) three times, am I ready to state that L.A. Confidential is as good as it gets?

I think so. It presents an image of toxic masculinity that emphasizes the toxic ... eventually we root for Bud White (Russell Crowe) and Ed Exley (Guy Pearce), but they are very unlikeable. (Kevin Spacey, who rounds out the three main male characters, is sleazy in a different way.) Crowe gives a performance for the ages; it's no surprise he got Best Actor Oscar nominations three years in a row starting in 2000 (winning once). He looks like Bud White: a blockheaded muscleman. And everyone treats him like one, not to mention he thinks of himself in that way. But there is always something in Crowe's eyes that lets you know there's something beneath the surface, and when Kim Basinger's Lynn Bracken falls for him, you believe her when she says she sees beneath the bravado. Pearce was arguably better known than Crowe in the States at the time for The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. He plays the intellectual, prissy cop ... he wears glasses and is regularly reminded by his colleagues to "lose the glasses", because they emphasize his lack of toxicity. Of course, Ed Exley turns out to be just as toxic as everyone else. What's funny is, Pearce was once a bodybuilder (winning Junior Mr. Victoria), and he likely could crush any of the other actors, but he keeps his shirt (and glasses) on and presents as the opposite of a bodybuilding stereotype.

The film does a good job of showing the men's gradual realization that things are not what they seem. It doesn't critique the toxicity ... you could argue toxicity wins in the end. But like Crowe's Bud White, L.A. Confidential is more than just a blockheaded muscleman. Meanwhile, it's Basinger who won the Oscar (no other actors were nominated). She's deserving enough, although I might have gone with Julianne Moore in Boogie Nights.

I haven't even talked about the recreation of Los Angeles in the 1950s (it's tremendous), and there is plenty of subtext besides the questioning of masculinity if you're so inclined. Yes, this movie is a 10.